The Pillars of Hercules: Easy trips from Gibraltar
Would you think of Gibraltar as a to-go place to learn sailing in the sun? Perhaps, if you are from the UK but otherwise? Croatia, Turkey, Portugal and Spain all spring to mind for super nearly all-year round sailing holidays, but Gibraltar? Well, deeply entrenched in its recent history is the occupation by a once-great seafaring nation, its subsequent role in the Napoleonic War and the Battle of Trafalgar, cementing Britain’s role as the predominant sea-power of Europe. A great place for some small-scale sea-faring, thanks to its interesting wind conditions, ports of interest and a busy shipping lane just outside its port.
But also, with its curious mix of historical interest, a strange olde-worlde Englishness, and a good bit of Southern Sun, it should be an interesting place to visit. If you can spare the money. After I decided on a whim I wanted to learn sailing, I did my first RYA Certificate Course (Competent Crew) in Gibraltar. Perhaps I should have given it more time, but walking through what looked like a 1970’s council house estate with more sun after crossing its runway on the way in from Spain, I took a quick peep at the monkeys, the booze shops, and its High Street that looked not unlike Darlingtons premier pedestrian mile. Then I ran off and back to Spain. After my course, I hopped on a fast ferry to Morocco. For that is the beauty of Gibraltar, too: It is small, and incredibly close to wonderful cities in Spain. And it’s a 60-minute hop away from Morocco. So, in two weeks you can learn to sail, and see three new countries quite leisurely by adding some trips from Gibraltar … and here is how:
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Sailing in Gibraltar
I flew to Gibraltar, and spent two nights in Algeciras at the beginning of my trip. I had always planned to add a few trips from Gibraltar to my itinerary. The day before my course was spent exploring Algeciras and visiting Ronda. I then took a bus to Gibraltar, and completed a five-day Competent Crew Course with Rock Sailing in Gibraltar. As the course finishes in the afternoon, I had another five days to spend – and I wanted to visit Morocco, which is extremely easy to do from Andalucia.
Algeciras is a great gateway to Andalucia
After a trip to Orgiva in Andalucia the year before, I wanted to see more of Andalucia. From Gibraltar Airport, a quick walk across the border took me to La Linea and its bus station. From there, buses depart every 30min to Algeciras. It’s a port city mostly known for its good ferry connections and extremely low-key. I stayed at the traditional Hotel Reina Christina, walked around Algeciras and its bustling market one morning, then took a train to Ronda. I really recommend the train as it’s one of the most beautiful train journeys in Europe. The line goes through the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, stopping in small mountain towns. The bus station is just across the road from the train station. Other easy day trips on public transport are Cadiz, Tarifa, Sevilla and Cordoba. And, of course, Gibraltar!
Ronda is an easy day trip
Ronda is beautiful but busy. I took a Renfe train from Algeciras to Ronda’s sleepy train station, then walked to its old town. Outside the old town, there is very little going on, but then… be braved for an onslaught of visitors. Still, it was November, and it was peaceful enough walking along its cobbled streets, enjoying the famous views of Puente Nuevo and the pretty streets and squares. As for sights… well… there are some! After perusing a leaflet of the tourist information, I visited the Casa Don Bosco. The house is a described as a Modernist mansion. Expect more like turn-of-the century-Moorish interior style. I loved its tranquil atmosphere and its garden. The garden is beautifully designed, with local ceramics incorporated into the design, a perfect example of small gardens, and offers unobstructed views of the gorge and Puente Nuevo. Apart from that, I just strolled the cobbled streets, ate incredibly cheap tapas, enjoyed the views and was back at the Reina Christina for the evening dance.
On to Morocco
After my sailing course finished on a Friday afternoon, I walked back to La Linea. From there, I took the bus to Algeciras, walked to the passenger port in the middle of town, purchased a ticket from one of the many ticket boots by the port, and followed instructions to go to a bus ion the port area, which took us to Tarifa. The fast ferry from Tarifa to Tangier is the nicest way to get to Morocco fast. You can take a direct ferry from Algeciras to the Spanish Exclave Ceuta (handy for Tetouan) but any Tangier Ferry will go to the huge Tangier Med miles and miles from Tangier, and although there is a bus, the overall journey will take much longer.
I really wanted to visit Tanger. Lots of people told me it’s not the “real” Morocco” and while this might be true, it is a charming city. I’d read a couple of Paul Bowles novels and just wanted to see it. It was not nearly as bad as I had been told. Okay, the walk in the dark up the Medina stairs to the Continental Hotel* was a bit scary, being alone in Africa and all, but actually, I shouldn’t have worried. There were some friendly enough guys trying to show me the way, but they left me alone.
I arrived in the dark and ventured out into the medina early the next morning. Yes, Tanger is a bit touristy, with cafes and shops to match, but far from tacky or unpleasant. As a single female, I received very little hassle. I might not be a spring chicken, but a couple years before I had been in Luxor on my own, and the attention was ten times more. I kinda liked it, and as I later found out, it has a strip of beaches with hotels, restaurants and cafes, but I have no idea what the water quality would be, being so close to the port.
Honestly… I just sat in a couple of cafes in the medina, drank mint tea, looked at some shops full of silver and Moroccan lamps and stuff, and walked around the Kasbah a bit, sat on the hotel salon with more coffee and prowled around the near-empty beautiful Hotel Continental. I was yet to visit Fes. But that’s a story for another day.
Getting to Gibraltar
I flew direct to Gibraltar on the now defunct Monarch Airlines. At the time of writing, Easyjet and British Airways fly to Gibraltar. Gibraltar is quite the airport to fly to! You might get your first experience of catabatic winds when landing there, and often flights can get diverted because of the unfavourable wind situation. Also, the runway is very short. The Duty Free at Gibraltar is one of the cheapest I’ve ever seen. Jerez and Malaga are close enough, with frequent coach connections to Algeciras from both airports. From Algeciras, a local bus runs frequently to La Linea de la Conception Central Bus Station, from where it’s an easy walk across the Gibraltar runway into Gibraltar.
Forget trains- there are good connections to Algeciras from Ronda, Cordoba and Madrid, but it’s not exactly a railway hub.
Border crossing into Gibraltar is pain-free most of the times unless you happen to visit when Spain and Gibraltar return to frosty relations – expect longer queues then but unhindered entry into Gibraltar. Be prepared to enter Gibraltar on foot, then there are buses right behind the border. The walking distance to Ocean Village Marina is less than 500m, and just slightly more into the centre – Gibraltar is a tiny place.
Moving on from Gibraltar
I recommend using La Linea Bus Station, a 5-minute walk from the border. From here, there is a bus to Algeciras roughly every half hour. The journey takes approximately 30 minutes. You can also take long-distance buses to Estepona, Malaga, Tarifa, Seville and even Madrid from here.
To get to Ronda, there is a direct train from Algeciras five times a day, taking roughly two hours through stupendous mountain scenery – the train journey alone is worth it! There are five daily trains in the opposite direction, and tickets start at 9 EURO.
To get to Morocco, I recommend the fast ferry from Tarifa – it will take you straight to Tanger-Ville in 60min and runs frequently. I bought my ticket form one of the many agents at the passenger port in Algeciras and paid about 35 EURO for a return trip from an agent. The ferry is run by FRS Iberia Ferries and prices can vary greatly. It might be worth to look at their day trips, which seem cheap in comparison! They run a free shuttle bus from Algeciras to Tarifa Ferry Port, too.
To get to Fez, take a train from Tangier. The modern and clean train station (Tangier Ville) is a little outside town. At present, the first TGV line in Africa is being built, so there may be some disruption. I just pitched up at the ticket counter, having checked train times on the Moroccan Railways site, and bought a ticket. Outside the touristed areas of Tanger, people are polite and there was zero hassling. My train was a little old but really comfy, and pretty empty. The four hour journey was fun, and I tried very hard to brush up my French by talking to the women in my compartment.
Where to stay
While on the course. you will stay on the yacht, with accommodation included in the course fee. Usually some meals are included in the course fee, too. All you will be asked to pay is pay into a food kitty for incidentals and drinks.
The courses tend to start in the early evenings with a cosy get-together and some briefings, and end in the late afternoons five days later. You might wish to stay somewhere the night before and after your course. Gibraltar is very, very expensive. Truth to be told, perhaps I didn’t give it the attention it deserved, but I recommend staying in Algeciras. Not only is Algeciras down to earth, it also has excellent train connections and ferried to Morocco and Ceuta.
I stayed in three hotels and one riad on this trip
The Hotel Reina Christina* is an old-fashioned olde-worlde hotel in the centre of town, a stone’s throw form the train station, bus station, and the market. It is settled somewhere between three and four stars and its buildings and grounds are beautiful. Rooms are large and comfortable but far from fashionable, but I love the old-fashioned gentility of the place, complete with Saturday-night dance with live band. A real throw-back in time. Love it.
The AC Hotel Algeciras* (formerly NH Hotel) is pretty much the opposite, generic, modern, but efficient and super-comfy, It’s a bit out of town, but the bus to Gibraltar (and the centre) is less than 5min walk away, and what little beach there is in Algeciras is a five-minute walk away, too. There are supermarkets and small local restaurants in walking distance, too.
The Continental Hotel* is old, full of character and conveniently located in the Medina, just steps from the passenger port. Originally a Diplomat’s mansion, it is about 150 years old and hasn’t been changed for years apart from some gentle updating of guest rooms. It used to be fancy, as its many lavish salons and terraces still show, but part of its charm is its unmodernised state. Rooms are rather simple, but stay for the views, the decor of the common areas, and the atmosphere! Part of “The Sheltering Sky” was filmed here.
Dar Farah* is a small riad guesthouse in Fes-el-Bali – the oldest part of Fez. You can only access it on foot or by donkey. However, the guesthouse is about 5minutes walk from the Bab Boujeloud, one of the main entry points to the Medina. It is relatively easy to find: after passing the Bab Boujeloud gate, you come to a plaza with lots of shops and restaurants, from which two main paths go off: take the right one, walk about 100m, then turn left into a tiny lane – there is a small sign, or ask someone at this point. It is a rather simple old riad, beautifully and authentically renovated, with just a handful of rooms. Expect authentic Moorish decor, comfy small rooms, and lovely breakfasts in the courtyard. It’s great for visiting most attractions of Fez, which are all in the old part of town.
Where to Eat
Again, few recommendations, sorry! I found the market area of Algeciras a nice place for cafes and bars, and Algeciras is generally not really touristy, you’ll probably eat well anywhere. In Gibraltar, the Ocean Village has a choice of restaurant to rival a British High Street, and I seriously cannot remember one that was particularly noteworthy though the ones I visited were fine! Bianca’s is pretty nice and has a good atmosphere, and I’ll say that because a lot of yachties hang out here, and we unashamedly used it as a meeting place, too.
I used the Rough Guide Morocco*. For my holiday read, I re-read “The Sheltering Sky”* . Another Paul Bowles classic set entirely in Tangier is “Let it Come Down”*. Did you know that Paul Bowles didn’t just write his own books, he also promoted Moroccan writers and translated many of their works into English? One of them is “For Bread alone”* by Mohammed Choukri, an account of moving to Tangier from the countryside during the 1950’s. Okay, bit of a Paul Bowles fan here, I admit. William S. Burroughs wrote “The Naked Lunch”* in Tangier but admittedly, seminal work or not, it’s a bit too psychedelic for me.
The very best book when you learn to sail is the cheap-ish RYA Competent Crew* coursebook. If you are very keen, consider getting the next one up the RYA Day Skipper Practical Course Notes*. These two are the single most useful books on sailing – there are tons of other sailing books, but these two are the ones you need to learn sailing. Don’t be put off by the kindergarten-like illustrations, didactically these are the best books. I also bought the RYA Day Skipper Handbook-Sail* and the RYA Weather at Sea*, but more out of personal interest.
For bucket-list type reading, I recommend Ultimate Sailing Adventures* and, if you are a sucker for beautiful classic yachts, Classic Sailing Yachts* (more like a coffee table book with pretty pictures) the excellent Classic Classes* (more affordable boats with technical details).
For a crackin’ good read, A Voyage for Madmen*, the excellently written tale of the first round the world yacht race will keep you occupied a night or two. After reading this, the attitude of Bernard Moitessier seemed most attractive – sailing in the lead, he decided to pull out of the race and enjoy Tahiti. His own account of the race is called The Long Way*. The saddest and most desperate figure, Donald Crowhurst, has been the subject of two movies recently. He sailed off in a plywood trimaran and made it as far as somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, faking his progress convincingly, until he los this mind and disappeared. You can read his story in A Race too far* and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst*. The winner, of that 1968 race was Robin Knox-Johnston, who wrote his own account of the race in A World of my Own*. I’ve not read the last three, finding them too sad/not dramatic enough – but if you have, please let me know what you think of them!
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